Report of the First Congress
of the New Lettrist International
I had been active in the Preliminary Committee for several years, so I was
very excited when it became possible to schedule the First Congress of the
New Lettrist International. Now it was actually taking place. Our first
rendez-vous was on Friday night in a bar down by the river. I soon saw our
little party, recognisable by the pile of suitcase brought from across the
world. Some people I knew well, others I had corresponded with but never
met, and there were yet more whose very names were new to me. In all there
were about seventy of us gathered on that summer's evening spread around
the tables between the bar and river.
I was not amongst the first to arrive. There were already a couple of dozen
lettrists, some of whom had been imbibing all afternoon. Our hosts had to
remain reasonably sober as they crossed names off lists, allocated accommodation
and handed out transport details. Most of us would be driven out to an old
hospice that evening. It had been squatted and now constituted the home
of a small community who had offered us their facilities for the weekend.
They could only offer barrack-type accommodation sleeping on the floor and
some had opted for other accomodation. We had brought a tent and arranged
to camp in the grounds of the hospice.
Soon I was part of the whirl of hugs and kisses, as friends separated by
hundreds or even thousands of miles greeted each other and caught up with
each others' news. There was general excitement, as we all looked forward
to the congress lifting our activities to new heights. When Luther Blissett
arrived he was surrounded by a small entourage. Even at that stage I was
worried that a successful conference might feed his growing sense of self
importance. (On Sunday morning I was able to have a discrete word with Karen
Eliot about this, and we agreed to monitor the situation and bring about
Blissett's deflation, if necessary.)
Varon arrived late, dressed in his customary cloak, despite the warmth
of the evening. He was quick to order some beer to initiate a drinking bout
which would go on into the small hours of the morning. I knew he would gather
around himself a school of hardened drinkers, and that this would constitute
a large part of their agenda for the congress, as it did for all his other
activities. This meant that he would be most approachable now or on Saturday
afternoon - we would of course see little of him or his hardiest disciples
before lunch next day. I decided to collar him immediately.
We were both veterans of Outer Spaceways Incorporated, a psychogeographical
outfit which had roamed Essex in the early seventies. I had been working
on a film script based on the OSI for some students from Farnham. I wanted
him to check through the account of the trip to Paris and the meeting with
Sun Ra, an event in which I was unhappily unable to participate. He thumbed
through the script I offered him, till his eyes lit upon a certain passage.
"Ah, so you've included the marmite gag" he smiled, enjoying
his own gag. He had pulled this stunt at a particularly dull party, emerging
from the toilet licking marmite from a piece of toilet paper exclaiming
how lovely it was. Of course, this was back in the seventies when even such
a simulation could be inspirational. How did we know then that by the nineties
there would be artists ready to genuinely eat their own and each others'
faeces in order to get a little attention from bored critics.
Our conversation drifted between reminiscences and a more abstract discussion
about how to historicise the follies of our youth, when Lynn and Mavis,
the 'Trappist Twins' came into the conversation.
"They're going to be here this weekend" Varon told me. "I've
always kept up with them, and they're prepared to come out of retirement
if the NLI looks any good."
"Have you got Lynn to talk yet", I asked, remembering how she
had never said a word throughout eighteen months involvement with OSI. Her
sister, Mavis could occasionally be induced to mutter, and would indeed
speak for both of them on occasions. Sometimes it seemed that Lynn was whispering
to Mavis, but despite various attempts to observe this phenomena at close
hand, no-one could assert that her lips had definitely moved.
"Oh no. I've only contacted them by phone, and it's always been Mavis
who's answered. Lynn's got two children now, thirteen and seven. They all
live with Mavis who's got a job as a gardener in Danbury Palace. She doesn't
get paid much, but they let her grow her own vegetables there, so at least
they don't have to buy much food. They live down a lane round the back of
We didn't see Lynn and Mavis that night, but they arrived after lunch the
next day. The morning had consisted of a welcoming address by our hosts
followed by brief introductions by all the delegates. The first session
had been a brief outline of the history of the old Lettriste Internationale,
an account of the need for a New Lettrist International and a resume of
the activities of the Preliminary Committee. I didn't bother to hang around
for this, but helped Jürgen and Estelle mount some of the exhibits.
I was particularly struck by the Hmong display.
The Hmong are a mountain people who live in Laos and Vietnam. The had participated
in the world wide insurrection against capitalism following the collapse
of the First World War by mounting what the French colonialists dismissively
called The War of the Insane. Under the mystical leadership of Pa Chai,
the Hmong had constructed a magical gun and successfully held off the colonial
authorities for two years (1919-21). However, when some Hmong warriors murdered
several local Laotians, something which Pa Chai's spirit guide had explicitly
forbidden, Pa Chai abandoned the uprising, and the Hmong insurgents ran
off to hide in the forest. The French authorities paid some Laotian assassins
to murder Pa Chai.
Forty years later, in 1959, an illiterate Hmong peasant called Shong Lue
Yang claimed he had a divine revelation whereby he was instructed to make
himself an opium pipe, which would facilitate communication with a divine
power. The drug-induced states helped him communicate with his twin sons,
with whom is wife, Pang Xiong, was pregnant. They taught him a new alphabet
for the Hmong, and Shong Lue devoted his time to studying this whilst his
fields were tended by birds, mice and ants. When his sons were eventually
born, his wife's parents paid a visit, and his mother-in-law castigated
Shong Lue and Pang Xiong for being lazy. The two newly born infants turned
blue. Shong Lue showed his father-in-law an example of his new script (direct
communication with his mother-in-law being forbidden in Hmong culture),
who then showed it to his wife. She put a stop to her torrent of scolding.
Although the twins faces returned to normal, they nevertheless both died
in the next couple of weeks. Nevertheless, Shong Lue found a message from
the younger twin who explained that they had decided to depart because of
the amount of trouble they had caused him.
Shong Lue Yang devoted the rest of his life to propagating his script amongst
the Hmong people. Although persecuted by the Viet Cong, right wing Hmongs
maintained that the mythical origin disguised a Russian and/or Chinese 'communist'
plot. These Hmongs had adopted the imperialist Roman alphabet. After twelve
years he was assassinated by troops of CIA backed General Vang Pao in 1971.
Since then his followers have still propagated his script even though the
punishment for using it in Vietnam is judicial murder.
I thought this was one of the more interesting matters raised during the
Congress. The first debate I attended was on anarchism. Shinsetsu O-Tearai
from Japan, opened this with scorching attack on Johnnie Moore's Anarchy
and Ecstasy. She quoted chapter and verse from Ei-sai's The Protection
of the State by the Propagation of Zen and mocked anarchism as an intellectually
unstimulating doctrine secreted by the European enlightenment. She then
propounded Do-gen's theory of The Sutra Equal in Size to the Whole World
concerning a 'text' which was written with characters drawn from heaven,
from man and the beasts, and from the vegetable world. This she compared
to John Toland's theory of seeds within matter, and William Blake's injunction
"to see the world in a grain of sand". She concluded that only
Lettrism can reconcile the finest fruits of East and West. This was received
with rapturous applause.
The carefully managed show piece of the Congress was delivered after lunch.
Blissett presented his 'flaming' of Hakim Bey. He characterised his methods
as the three-fold technique of conspiracy: action/cover-up/exposure. The
first phase consisted of publishing a book allegedly by Bey. In fact all
sorts of elements were inserted amongst genuine Bey tracts, including one
of Stalin's speeches. This occurred whilst two of Bey's publishers were
having a squabble. Buffo had edited out a reference to Che Guevara as the
"Rudolph Valentino of Red Fascism" so as not to offend the leftists.
The others wanted noting to do with him. Bey got dragged into all, and wound
up backing up Buffo with threats of court action to the others. Then Blissett's
book was exposed as a being fraudulent, designed to expose the intellectual
inadequacies of the Italian avant-garde. It was taken up by the mass media,
and Buffo's complaints that only mainstream culture should be attacked in
such a way exposed him to even more ridicule. Varon took advantage of the
subsequent discussion to point out the completely spurious nature of Blissett's
three-fold formula, as the middle term, far from being any sort of cover
up was the fortuitous actions of people unconnected with the original plot.
Blissett accepted this point, but as a strength rather than a weakness.
That evening I managed to catch up with Mavis. It turned out she was involved
in a complex piece of Lettrist gardening which apparently involved planting
seeds according to algebraic calculations based on renaissance theories
of sympathy, by which various species of plant were linked with the humours
and astrological events to create an alphabetical garden of the stars. At
least that was what she seemed to say through her mumbles. Lynn smiled but
said not a word. I later heard that Blissett had got really paranoid about
the two sisters, and had even speculated that they might be spies. Fortunately
he was put in his place on that score.
Sunday morning was sparsely attended which was just as well. The talk about
Nonsology had been brought forward from the afternoon - but without informing
the speaker. So it never took place. However, by lunch time everyone was
assembled, and prepared statements were read out. These had been concocted
by five or six hard-nosed politicos who had boycotted the other socialising
in order to produce their verbal confections. They were generally well received,
and the afternoon was spent ironing out the practical consequences of these
By four o'clock the congress was wound up, and the delegates started to
drift off. We would not be meeting up for over a year now, and a warm atmosphere
pervaded the hall as we each took leave from friends old or new. The New
Lettrist International had now been launched and we had all resolved to
plunge back into our work with renewed zeal. I was proud to be part of this
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Long Live the New Lettrist International